Gay Alliance champions the silent 10%
THOMAS J. MORGAN Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer. Providence Journal [Providence, R.I] 24 July 1985: 0-06.
PROVIDENCE — Discrimination and civil rights don’t mix in Diane Cook’s world, and her organization has been working for the past two years to eradicate bias against its membership and against people like them.
She is chairwoman of the Rhode Island Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, whose membership, she said, “varies according to the issue at hand.”
Like many groups, she said, there is a hard core of “10 to 20 people who do all the work, but we can obviously reach quite a few people for special things such as legislative hearings.”
It’s all quite informal, she said. “We don’t have a membership list. Nobody signs anything, we just get together to work on problems. There’s no budget. We do have a checking account, and occasionally some funds to use, but that’s all few and far between.” The money, spent largely on mailings, comes primarily from membership donations, she said.
“We tend to do these things ourselves,” she said of impromptu efforts to influence political decisions. “During the legislative session it’s very expensive,” she added.
Cook said that the group has no formal officers. “We never wanted to be that kind of an organization,” she said. Out of the same desire for informality, the organization has not sought grant money from the government nor from sources such as the United Way.
What problems do gay men and lesbians encounter in Rhode Island?
“The same that gay and lesbian people have nationally and internationally,” she replied – “prejudice abounds. But we don’t expect to do much about that. You can’t legally do anything about what goes on in peoples’ heads – there’s no way, and you really wouldn’t want to regulate peoples’ attitudes.
“This organization was designed to obtain legal sanctions for our civil rights, which we don’t have. Along the way, we hope to make more accurate peoples’ perceptions of gays and lesbians.”
Is Providence a particularly prejudiced place?
“I’m not sure that it’s especially so,” she said. “We obviously are really different from San Francisco or Boston, but I’m not sure we’re any different from other cities of the same size.
“National population figures show that 10 percent of the population is gay. In terms of adults, in Rhode Island, that’s about 70,000.”
Do gay people concentrate in particular communities?
“Gay people are not entirely identifiable, even to each other,” said Cook. “So how are you going find out who lives where?”
Are the figures accurate?
“The best way to estimate is to rely on studies done in the past,” she said. “I don’t think you will find fewer than 10 percent in Maine or more than 10 percent in some urban area. It’s an interesting question, because I can remember (state Rep.) David Dumas from East Greenwich saying in one hearing that he thinks most of us live in the city. It sort of implied to me that he was saying, ‘Whew: Most don’t live in my district.’ ”
The Alliance was formed in 1983 and made its first legislative foray in the 1984 session of the General Assembly, said Cook.
“Our first effort was when (Rep.) Linda Kushner introduced a bill to prohibit employment discrimination. It was an amendment to the Fair Employment Practices Act. It would have added the words ‘sexual orientation’ to the other categories such as race or religion. It was defeated in the House Labor Committee.
“It never got to the floor, but we had a wonderful hearing. We had good speakers, and we outnumbered the opposition two to one. When you’re as far away from having your rights as gay people are, then that is a major victory.
“We spent the next year organizing, getting people to commit themselves to come to the hearing, or call their represenatives or write to them, or speak at the hearing. And we assembled informational packages for the legislators.
“In 1985 we introduced the bill in both House and Senate. Sen. Sean Coffey introduced it in the Senate, and it passed. I mean it passed 10 to 6 in the Labor Committee. It went to the floor of the Senate, and it was defeated by only 8 to 10 votes.
“We felt pretty good. It was a controversial issue. My impression is that if legislators don’t have to take a stand on something controversial, they prefer not to. (Sen. James M.) Donelan of Warwick made the major point that the House had already defeated it in the House Labor Committee. He said it was a useless gesture for the Senate to pass it, and it made the senators more comfortable about voting to table it.
“This particular vote was ironic in view of the fact that just before they voted on it, they had voted on the apartheid bill. People were getting up and saying they had to stand up for civil rights and human rights and for our brethren in Africa. Then they turned around and voted down our employment discrimination bill.”
She said the picture for homosexual men and woman has improved over the past decade, but she fears a “backlash” is in progress.
“Look at some of the decisions that have been made: in other states, counties and cities that passed comprehensive human rights laws, the laws have been overturned. Then there’s things like Reagan coming to power and gutting the Civil Rights Commission. And things like what happened in Massachusetts recently, in our most liberal state. There was a ruling to keep foster children from being placed with gay foster parents.
“It was the governor’s decision. They didn’t form that policy on the opinions of the professionals involved. They appear to have set the policy based on the public attitude, the same old misconceptions.
“Gay parents are as good as straight people at parenting. In fact, gay men are better, more nurturing than straight men, according to studies. But they’re not looking at studies. They are not looking at the evidence. They are making decisions that are more political than professional.
“That’s what I mean by backlash. I guess it grew with the religious Right. They kept talking about ‘homosexuals’ and AIDS. The media don’t help either when they scream ‘Now AIDS is striking heterosexuals and babies.’
“Every week, it seems, I turn around and find a magazine that says homosexuals are to blame. How many steps away is it from saying, ‘It’s time to exterminate the gays’?”
Cook said that although her organization obviously prefers some political candidates over others, the members do not spent a great deal of time working for or against someone’s election. She said they concentrate instead on the candidates for the state constitutional offices.
“We try to interview all the candidates to find out where they stand,” she said. In the last election, she said, only Gen. Treas. Anthony J. Solomon, Democratic candidate for governor, refused to be interviewed. “His people just kept on saying, ‘Well, we’ll meet you at such-and-such a time,’ then they wouldn’t come. Or they said that they would call back, but never did. We didn’t find that with the other candidates.”
Cook said the interview project has proved “enormously efficient. It not only gives us an opportunity to find where they stand, but when you go in there you find they’ll issue an office policy statement – like an EEOC (a statement promising to abide by the policies of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission), which includes a prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual preference.”
She said that current Gen. Treas. Roger N. Begin has not issued such a statement (she added that the organization has not spoken with him yet), “and I am still waiting on the governor. But at the time of the House hearing this year, we got letters of support from all the general officers, including the governor. I don’t think that would have happened if the Alliance hadn’t been out there since September talking to all these people.”
Cook said the Alliance does not issue political endorsements. “We do take down information and publish it in a community newsletter,” she said. The newsletter, Options, publishes all of the Alliance material, she said, helped perhaps by the fact that she’s the editor.
Some gay political action groups maintain a list of politicians who are antipathetic to gay rights. Such politicians often are called “Neanderthals.” Does the Alliance have such a list?
“I don’t know if that’s advisable,” said Cook. “We have a list, but we keep it in our heads. Yes, there’s at least a handful that we could really stand to see defeated.
“Some people think of themselves as liberals, yet they really have no concept of discrimination. They’ll tell you they have no objection to what adults do in private, but then they’ll turn around and say they don’t want you talking to their daughter. Most people don’t want to talk about it, period.
“But as far as the politicians go, you have the extreme of the guy from North Kingstown – Motherway (Sen. Robert T. Motherway). In the last session you had the extreme of his saying that if such a bill passed you could potentially have a rescue worker with gonorrhea of the throat giving you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the implication being that we are dirty people and we’re going to spread disease.”
Most of the Alliance members are college-educated, she said. Their occupations vary – “We have a community organizer, a professor, a factory worker, a stockbroker. I am a disability examiner for the state. We have no one who is unemployed or on welfare.” She laughed, “We are all outstanding citizens, fully employed, some in the closet, some of us not.”
Another political action tactic has been a voter-registration drive. “We try to sign up people in gay bars, and it has been marginally successful. We will keep it up. It’s just a matter of setting priorities – a problem of lack of staff.